directory TUTORIAL: Information



Information is in essence a theory about making the possible actual. It sets an event which does happen in the context of other and different events which only might have happened, so that potential and actual are related. Aristotle talked about possibilities, but he also appreciated the importance of limits on the number of possibilities imposed by the forms. A form constrains matter, even while enabling it to realize its potential, and does not leave it free to be anything and everything. --Jeremy Campbell

Imagine a box on the outside of which are two lights - one red and one green. The following picture illustrates such a box. 2 LIGHT BOX The goal of this exercise will be to construct a standard U.S. stoplight, but for the moment, think of this as simply a box with two differently colored lights. If each light can be either on or off (i.e., none will ever be "blinking"), then from this paradigm of two lights, it is possible to construct four syntagms:

In this exercise, the last two of these will become the "traffic control" paradigm.light paradigm To construct a traffic light, this paradigm must be matched to a paradigm of two elements from the behaviors of the automobile driving public, in this case, "Stop" and "Go" The picture shows how a code of two rules would map the paradigms together.

This set of rules would produce patterns of traffic at the intersection that is controlled by the light. Sometimes these patterns will show a smooth flow of traffic; sometimes they will show long lines and "backups."

Clearly, the light organizes the flow of traffic by imposing constraints on the activities of the drivers of the cars. But, as you may have noticed, this is not yet a depiction of a real traffic light; the yellow element is missing. The need for the yellow light illustrates the concept of information. q3008 q3010

If a city was to try the "Red/Green" light out on the streets, it would discover a problem. Some drivers coming up to an intersection during a green light would suddenly be confronted with a change to red. If they were moving fast enough, and were close enough to the intersection, these drivers would not have time to stop. Yet, the drivers whose red light had just changed to green would be able to go. The likely result would be collisions.

The problem, as it turns out, is that "stop" is not an instantaneous event. A driver must begin to stop the car sometime prior to actually arriving at being stopped. In this situation, where the oncoming drivers would find themselves uncertain as to when the green light would change to red, some might proceed cautiously, and others might not, but none would be sure when the light might change, everyone would be confused, and all would be taking a chance on having a collision.

The purpose of the yellow light is to resolve this uncertainty by informing the oncoming drivers that the light will soon change to red. In other words, the yellow element of the traffic light paradigm maps on to the element of driving behavior known as "prepare to stop the car".

3 lights

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Communication that reduces uncertainty in the receiver is said to informthe receiver. As with communication itself, information is a process. It is important to notice the difference between data, which are the patterns that human beings perceive with their senses, and information, which is the process by which human interpretation of those patterns reduces their uncertainty. exampleHow do clocks inform? q1017. q3013 q3014 q3015

The relationship between data and meaning will be examined in greater depth in the next section of this tutorial. But because it is so important, it must again be emphasized that data is that which is encountered by the senses, while information is the process by which data are interpreted and uncertainty is reduced.


A claim of relevance is a claim that the message will combine with and alter the context in some way, for example, by adding new facts or ideas or by changing previously available ideas. Interpretation requires discovering the relevance of a message and may include expanding or changing the interpreter's understanding of what the context is. For example, the interpreter may have thought the context of a conversation with an old acquaintance was "the good old days," until a remark about "making sure your loved ones are provided for" invokes the very different context of "selling life insurance." Once the new context has been invoked, the relevance of previous parts of the conversation may change in a radical way. For example, questions about one's career development may be reinterpreted as an attempt to gauge the likely size of an expected sales commission rather than as evidence of personal interest. -- David Ritchie

The traffic light that was described in the previous section is a communication device, but it is a very simple communication device. One of its characteristics is that it always flashes the same lights, in the same sequence, for the same amount of time...forever, if the power holds out. This means that the light never adjusts to changes in the flow of traffic through its intersection. On the other hand, a human police officer standing at the same intersection would be able recognize changes in the traffic flow and adjust the time allotted accordingly. This is an important property of human consciousness, and its role in human communication is equally important. q3025 q3026

Without uncertainty there can be no meaning. A receiver who has complete certainty with respect to an incoming message would be able to predict its contents with one-hundred-per-cent accuracy. But if a receiver is absolutely sure what a message will say, then it cannot mean anything (because the receiver already knows all about it).

In our earlier example, the traffic light is oblivious to information. It has no uncertainty at all -- it simply follows its program and performs its function. Because of this, it is completely out of touch with its environment, and thus, it is unable to adjust to changing situations.

On the other hand, human beings are in constant touch with their environments. They are always somewhat uncertain, and they are always receiving data, much of which is informative. We speak of this property of being "in touch" with everything around us as having context.

Mechanical devices have little context; consequently they have little uncertainty and they are unable to receive very much in the way of meaningful communication. But human beings are extremely contextual; they are constantly aware of what they know and don't know, and they constantly seek information and meaningful communication.
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